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Doing right for the country: The Canadian War Museum’s mission to save Canada’s Victoria Crosses

Doing right for the country: The Canadian War Museum’s mission to save Canada’s Victoria Crosses
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That’s the simple inscription on the Commonwealth’s highest military medal, but it carries with it the weight of almost 100 stories of Canadian bravery.

The Victoria Cross is not an elaborate medal. It’s a simple square cross, made of a bronze alloy with a crown and a lion over the inscription. Since it was first created in 1856 it has been awarded to 99 Canadians.

The cross has been given to Canadian soldiers for sacrifices on the beaches of Dieppe, the fields of Passchendaele or at Hill 70. They were given to aviators who stayed inside burning planes to free trapped colleagues and a captain who moored his boat in a hostile harbour even as it caught fire. It has been awarded both to those who survived battles and posthumously to those who did not.

Its recipients have their names on roads, an airport and even a mountain. No Canadian has been awarded one since the Second World War. In 1993, Canada created its own version of the award, but none has been handed out.

According to National Defence soldiers have been considered for the award since the Second World War, but have been deemed not to meet the criteria.

Of the 99 medals, 39 are in the hands of the Canadian War Museum and the museum wants to ensure all of the medals stay in the country and, as much as possible, are on public view.

Eric Fernberg, collections specialist at the museum, said all of the medals were awarded to men who showed remarkable bravery.

“It has always been highly regarded as the top award, because the criteria is so high and the sacrifice is so high,” he said. “They overrode all sense of self-preservation to be able to do the things that they did speaks to the individuals.”

He said the medal was also among the first gallantry awards given out regardless of rank.

“In 1856, when Queen Victoria instituted it it was her intention that it would be for everybody. It didn’t matter if you were a general, a lieutenant colonel or a private. It was for everybody.”

Fernberg said because of the importance of the medal the museum does keep an eye open for any that come on the market. When sold, the medals now go for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction.

Most are in public institutions of one kind or another, provincial museums and regimental museums. Fernberg said they know where all of the crosses are and make sure potential sellers are aware of the museum interest.

Because of their rarity, Victoria Crosses have been rising in value in recent years. The war museum doesn’t discuss the prices it pays for the medals, but one of its recent purchases, the medal of Lt.-Col. David Currie, was sold for $660,000 at auction not long before the museum acquired it.

The medal was purchased by an unknown buyer, but rules against exporting cultural property prevented it from leaving Canada and the museum was able to come to terms with the auction buyer. The museum’s purchase included $220,000 from a special government fund for cultural property like this and was likely close to the $660,000 paid at auction.

The criteria is so high and the sacrifice is so high

Currie is one of only 16 Canadians to receive the medal for actions during the Second World War and the only one who received it for fighting in Normandy.

That same government fund gave the museum $160,000 for part of the purchase cost of the medal of Lt.-Col. Harcus Strachan who lead a cavalry charge during the First World War.

Fernberg said the museum has to deal with the costs as they are.

“The prices are always set by fair market value and fair market value is set at a public auction, by who is in the room on a given day,” he said.

He said auction houses often give the museum a heads up when an important medal is about to go up for sale, but sometimes they find out only when the catalogue is published. He said the day of an auction is always a nervous one for the museum.

“We have identified it as an object that we want for the country and of course there is a little bit of apprehension,” he said. “You want to do right for the country. You want to do right for the citizens of Canada.”

Fernberg said the museum doesn’t want to acquire all 99. He said many are in local or regimental museums and that’s the right place for them.

“They have a history of their own. So if a Victoria Cross was donated by a recipient or their family to the regimental museum. that’s as important to the regimental museum as it is to us,” he said. “That is part of their story and that is part of the story of the Victoria Cross.”

David Kennedy and his family decided the best place for his great uncle’s Victoria Cross was Edmonton City Hall. Pte. Cecil Kinross charged a German machine gun at Passchendaele and was badly injured in the process.

Kennedy said putting the medal up for auction was a non-starter for his family.

“We never considered it to go to auction, it should always stay in the family or be on display for the public,” he said. “It’s a more important gift than currency could ever pay you.”

Kennedy said the family felt Edmonton was the right fit, because that’s where Kinross was from.

“It is more to show that the sacrifices of my great uncle are really representative of Albertans as a whole.”

Fernberg said the museum wants families to do whatever they feel most comfortable with when it comes to medals.

“We have to recognize that everyone views and see their family objects or their family legacy differently,” he said.

The museum has a long-standing policy that it will accept any Canadian war medal a family wants to donate, from the Victoria Cross to standard service medals. He said families often hang onto them long after other parts of the history like uniforms or photographs are gone.

“The idea was that we would accept the medals of all Canadian servicemen and women as something special, because for many families that is all that is left of the family legacy,” he said. “Families always hang onto the medals as best they can.”

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